The UN wants to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. But, as many of us are acutely aware, the SDGs are not only ambitious but also complicated. A kaleidoscope of grand visions, the 2030 Agenda aims to rebuild our world from the ground up, in a work plan covering everything from the environment to education to peace and security. And linked to the 17 goals, there are 169 targets and 230 indicators.
For The Economist magazine: “these are ambitions on a Biblical scale and not in a good way”. The question therefore becomes: do we really have the foundations, the architecture and the craftsmen to achieve this massive task? Is the UN, now in its 70s, up to leading this challenge? If not, does it have the time and capacity to reform itself while ‘on the job’?
According to Laszlo Szombatfalvy, Founder of the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF): “Today’s risks are so dangerous and so global in their nature that they’ve outrun the international system’s ability to deal with them. We’re trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools. We believe a new shape of collaboration is needed to address the most critical challenges in our globalized world.” This — along with a $5 million prize competition — formed the backdrop to our “UNU Action Debate” on 6 March 2017.
A model for global reform?
To give a truly international perspective, UNU put forward two European directors, an award-winning researcher from Senegal, a Master’s student with Turkish roots, and a moderator from Bolivia. They were joined by a Swedish professor, who serves on the board of the GCF.
Our panellists agreed on one thing from the outset: that the UN must put human security first while pursuing the 2030 Agenda. But they made two broad streams of recommendations: one internal to the UN, the other external.
On the internal side, they said the UN needs to be leaner, less bureaucratic and more people-focused. Given the growing challenges to multilateralism, the UN must really add value at all levels: from the corridors of power to the alleyways of slums. As one ambassador to the UN said in 2016: “the only measure of our work here is whether we are or are not helping and supporting real people.”
In general, our panellists called for policymakers to show more honest self-reflection and to have the political courage to make tough decisions to meet the goals. To shore up the UN’s legitimacy, one speaker noted the campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly, which aims to “give popularly elected representatives a formal role in global affairs… [because] more and more issues have a global dimension that requires global cooperation”.
On the external side, our speakers stressed the importance of working with civil society, youth and the private sector. Not just to ensure the usual checks and balances, but because ground-breaking ideas often come from inspired outsiders — people like students and entrepreneurs.
This UNU Action Debate provided a candid background to the GCF Prize 2017, which is open for submissions from 1 April to 30 September 2017. Please check the GCF website for a video of our debate, along with others from the series (available shortly). Images from our event and a brief interview with the directors of UNU-CRIS and UNU-EHS are available below.
Members of the panel
• Prof. Dr Jakob Rhyner, Vice-Rector for United Nations University in Europe and Director, UNU-EHS;
• Mr Anthony Antoine, Interim Director, UNU-CRIS;
• Dr Maty Konte, Researcher, UNU-MERIT;
• Mr Selahattin Topal, Master’s student in Public Policy and Human Development, UNU-MERIT;
• Mr Diego Salama, Communications Officer, UNU-MERIT (Moderator);
• Prof. Dr Folke Tersman, Head of the Department of Philosophy at Uppsala University, Sweden and Board Member of the Global Challenges Foundation.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / S.Brodin; H.Hudson